What could be better this time of year than a story about an underdog that takes place in the thick of the holiday season?
Said underdog is Mary Bennet (of “Pride and Prejudice” fame… or rather, insignificance), who joins her sister Elizabeth at her Pemberley estate home for Christmas in Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley.
For those who know and love the source material, you’ll instantly recognize the Bennet sisters (minus Kitty, who is in London) as a few years wiser but still relentlessly themselves. For those who aren’t familiar with Pride and Prejudice (like my companion on opening night), you’ll enjoy uncovering the story and the characters, despite missing a few references back to the novel.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley focuses on the other Miss Bennet – the one who wasn’t beautiful, or witty, or flirtatious or outrageous like her sisters. The one who was barely mentioned in Jane Austen’s novel, who was left at home when her sisters married or went off to London, to read and play piano, take care of her parents and supposed to become a spinster. But this is not the story of Mary’s slow and sad descent into spinsterhood. It’s a story of accepting that your sibling has grown up beyond the image you have of them in your head. It’s a love story, a story of independence, a story of being perfect just the way you are. And it’s a gentle way to get into the holiday spirit if you’re not there already.
In Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley we meet a Mary who was happy to be rid of her sisters when they married but is starting to admit that a life of reading, piano and caring for her parents is not all she desires. She wants to be seen as a whole person and to have human connection and companionship.
Luckily for Mary, Arthur de Bourgh (a distant cousin of her sister’s husband, Mr. Darcy) arrives in all his bookish glory and the two hit it off immediately. There should be love but, as with any good Jane Austen story (although this one is written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon), obstacles crop up as soon as Mary and Arthur start examining their feelings for one another. What ensues is a joyful romp through the highs and lows of finding love, achieving social status, and obtaining wealth.
Directed by Nancy McAlear, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is striking first because of its attention to detail. Literally, from top to bottom and inside out, the production is thoroughly rooted in the time period – Dana Osborne’s set and costumes are intricate and beautiful, and the actors’ dialect and movement are crisply regent and reflective of a time where gestures and words were used sparingly and efficiently.
As the central characters, Mikaela Davies (Mary Bennet) and Umed Amin (Arthur de Bourgh) are delightfully awkward as they move through the world in general, and we see things become just a little easier when they are in one another’s presence. I really admire how the two actors physical movements and presence mirror one another, setting us up from the beginning to see how complementary they are to one another.
I really enjoyed seeing the other Bennet sisters as recognizable but decidedly older versions of Jane Austen’s iconic characters. As Jane, Emma Laishram is calm, gentle and full of sympathetic looks of understanding in every scene. Emma Houghton’s Lydia is as over-the-top as you’d expect, but her performance betrays a tinge of understanding (finally) of the appropriateness of her actions. Allison Edwards-Crewe’s Jane is lively and opinionated, although I found her giddiness and obsession with marital bliss to be a little exaggerated, especially in a story that, for me, has always emphasized the economic criticality of marriage balanced with an equal desire for an equal matching of mind and temperaments in that marriage.
As Anne de Bough, Gianna Vacirca is anything but the meek and sickly daughter portrayed in the novel. Her performance is wonderfully over-the-top – finally a rival for Lydia – and she steals every scene she’s in, but with good cause. In no character is the tension between marriage and happiness more obvious, and this character is a great tribute to the politics of the time that Austen’s novel shone a light on.
The husbands – Mathew Hulshof as Darcy and Cameron Kneteman as Bingley – mostly serve to facilitate the plot, but they do have a few wonderful bonding scenes where they discuss Bingley’s impending fatherhood, reflect on their own journeys to marriage, and advise Arthur at length on how to go about wooing a woman – and learn from their own mistakes.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is well-executed as a loving tribute and sequel to the novel that’s stolen many an imagination (my own included).
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs at the Citadel Theatre until December 9, including dates that overlap with the Citadel’s classic A Christmas Carol – the final season of Tom Wood’s adaptation of Charles Dicken’s classic work. Tickets are available through the Citadel Theatre’s box office and are limited. At time of publication, tickets for most performances were available in the $98 – $114 price range.